In 1980, a series of events led to young Trinidadian immigrant Colin Warner being wrongfully convicted of second degree murder. It took over twenty years before he got released. In 2005, the This American Life podcast had an episode on the subject which popularized the story a bit more, and that tale is what inspired this movie.
Crown Heights comes from mostly unknown writer/director Matt Ruskin in an impressive sophomore effort to his much older movie Booster from 2012. In the New York City neighborhood of Crown Heights in 1980, where a large community of immigrants from Caribbean islands lived, worked, and etc. Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield) is an immigrant from Trinidad who works for a mechanic and steals cars on the side off the street (no violent crimes, but the guy’s not exactly a saint).
He’s just living his life while trying to woo local girl Antoinette (Natalie Paul) when he suddenly gets arrested off the street by the police. He has been identified by a witness as the murderer of a local 16 year old boy, even though everyone (read: the neighborhood) knows it wasn’t him. But nobody’s willing to come forward and say who it really was, because nobody trusts the police.
For their part, the arresting officers pressure the witness and threaten him with deportation if he refuses to finger Colin. But as the trial muddies the waters, the prosecution makes the argument that both Colin and the actual killer Norman Simmonds were in cahoots. But the jury finds them both guilty. Norman is underage and only gets the maximum allowed for a juvenile, while Colin gets the minimum sentence for his accused crime, fifteen years.
The movie then shows us the passage of time as Colin struggles inside prison while outside, his best friend Carl King (Nnamdi Asomugha) struggles to get his friend out. Carl tries to find legal help, to raise money, even to study the law himself, to the exclusion of all else in his life. The movie then expertly shows clips of real world politicians pushing legislation to be “tough” on crime, which all sound good until you realize it’s all empty politicking that hurt people like Colin.
Sometimes the movie can be a bit slow, but in general it flows with tension and alacrity, and towards the end we know what is coming, but can’t wait for it to happen already. It’s hard to show the sheer number of years that passed for Colin and Carl as they worked with and against each other. But the movie does this mostly very well, to the point sometimes I forgot just how much time had passed.
Perhaps the makeup job isn’t so great in the scheme of thing, but it’s easy to ignore because the acting from the leads is so strong. As a real life person, Lakeith Stanfield inhabits the role with ease, making it easy to empathize with this complex but good-hearted person. And former footballer Nnamdi Asomugha is quite good as his best friend, leaving me surprised when I found out he was an athlete.
The movie’s ending may be no surprise, but it’s still satisfying on the way there. If you’re into these sorts of dramas that have real world “important” messages behind them, this isn’t a bad one to check out.
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Crown Heights has a run time of 1 hour 34 minutes and is rated R for language, some sexuality/nudity and violence.